Could AIDS Pandemic be 'Golden Opportunity' for Church?

Janet Chismar | Senior Editor, News & Culture | Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Could AIDS Pandemic be 'Golden Opportunity' for Church?

Jesus instructed His followers to love the sick and hurting. Why, then, are so few Christians reaching out to people suffering with HIV/AIDS - or to orphans the disease creates?


According to CNS News, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) issued a warning last week that the number of children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa was expected to double to 25 million by the end of the decade. UNICEF said sub-Saharan Africa faced an explosion of parentless children because of the spread of the disease.


"Given that the global AIDS pandemic is still in its early stages, there can be no doubt that the growing number of children orphaned by AIDS means the world will see an explosion in the number of child prostitutes, children living on the streets and child domestic workers," said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF'S executive director.


A survey released last month shows that evangelicals are less likely than other Americans to help children orphaned by AIDS. The survey of more than 1,000 adults, sponsored by World Vision and conducted by the Barna Research Group, found that 3 percent of evangelicals said they "definitely" would help children orphaned because of AIDS, compared with 5 percent of all respondents.


Evangelical Christians were one of the least likely groups supportive of HIV/AIDS causes. However, evangelicals fared better than average -- 14 percent compared with 7 percent overall -- when asked whether they would definitely help underprivileged children overseas.


As was the case two years ago when the survey was first conducted, public support for efforts to help those affected by the AIDS crisis is low across the board.  David Kinnaman, vice president of Barna Research Group and director of the study, said, "One of the big surprises from this study is the fact that evangelicals -- who are typically some of the most generous donors in our country -- were particularly unmoved by the plight of AIDS orphans. However, the other story is that few Americans were particularly sensitive to the issue of such children."


"Nearly 2,000 years after Jesus gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are still asking the question, 'Who is my neighbor?' And we're still getting the answer wrong," says World Vision President Richard E. Stearns. "This simple, yet most profound parable speaks to the AIDS epidemic. Today, it should challenge our own community of faith, an American Church that largely is ignoring the AIDS pandemic."


Steve Haas, a vice president for World Vision, thinks media reports about negative statistics have a "short shelf life" in motivating people to act. "We are often pushed because of shame or guilt, but those feelings go only so far in terms of activity."


According to Haas, there is another, more important message that should be emphasized: "It's the opportunity that's been given to the church. We are hearing it from governments, from our own president, from Bono [lead singer for the rock group U2], who is saying it perhaps the most eloquently. Bono has said, 'Church - this is your day.'"


"We are either going to grasp this opportunity and lead and see God do some incredible things," says Haas, "or we are going to find ourselves troubled 100 years from now, when history proves that the church had the opportunity and they fumbled it."


So Where's the Church?


A question that should be asked, according to Haas, is: "Are we disobedient or are we are ignorant?" He believes inactivity is caused by ignorance. "We are operating off of old information, and it is time for us to awake."


As Franklin Graham has noted, "When AIDS first came onto the world scene, many Christians had a skewed view of the disease and whom it affected.  For various reasons, most Christians, including myself, did not become actively involved in the fight against the disease. That was wrong and I must admit I feel quite differently now."


In an address given at the Prescription for Hope: International Christian Conference on HIV/AIDS last February, Graham said, "Often, when we have gotten involved, it has been to proclaim how to avoid contracting the disease, but we have shamefully little to say to those who are already infected and living with AIDS, usually without hope.


"That is why we have called this conference Prescription for Hope," Graham continued, "because we believe that with God's help there is hope. There is much we can do that we have not been doing to reach out to a hurting and dying world as a result of this pandemic." 


Among those supporting Graham's efforts to mobilize the Christian community in the fight against HIV/AIDS is U.S. Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). During a Prescription for Hope press conference, Frist said misconceptions about the disease and how it is contracted have played a role in the Christian community's slow response.


"Many people said whoever has HIV/AIDS is a sinner ... and therefore it has been hard for a lot of churches to actually embrace the HIV-positive family in the global sense," Frist explained.


Haas agrees that lack of involvement is usually due to a stereotype or stigma associated with the disease. "That puts us back in the '80s, in which this new virus had come out and HIV/AIDS was promulgated by people with at-risk lifestyles, like homosexuals and drug users."


According to Haas, the latest statistics are "very chilling." Reports now show that HIV/AIDS is predominately a heterosexually passed disease. "Women who did nothing but were faithful to their husbands, who were unfaithful to them, are infected. Kids who were born into it, who did nothing to deserve it, are infected.


"The picture firmly planted in our minds, which has to be erased, is of at risk lifestyles, which we in the church too many times put at arms distance. We don't want to go there."


Isolation & Fear


On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, Haas visited public hospitals along with Dr. Eugene Rivers, pastor of Boston's Azusa Christian Community and special assistant to the president of the Pan-African Charismatic Evangelical Congress.


Haas says when he and Rivers were being shown beds of people who had contracted AIDS, or people on dialysis, the doctor would tell them in a very hushed tone: "OK, the people who are infected are in bed." The two were instructed, "Do not stare. Do not let anyone else know that you know they have HIV/AIDS."


According to Haas, if the AIDS patients were identified, people within the ward - other patients - would have a sense of revulsion toward them and would avoid contact or conversation. "How damaging when you realize that's not how the virus is passed. Even in a ward where the majority of the people on the ward are HIV positive, there is a sense of stigma.


"For those suffering from full-blown AIDS, there was almost complete isolation. What these people were dealing with at that point was lack of hope," Haas adds.


Franklin Graham points to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"  (Matt. 5:3).  For the many people infected with this disease, they have little hope to press on.  Could these have been some of the people Jesus spoke about as being poor in spirit?  People with no hope? He offers them hope."


"This crisis has to be on the radar screen of churches," says Haas, "because the disease is creating orphans and widows, and that of course, has always been rich work for those in the faith-based community. And either we seize the opportunity and begin to care like only we can care, to provide hope like only we can provide hope, and nurture like only we can nurture, or we are going to walk backwards."


Editor's Note: In Part Two of this series, we will look at ways groups like World Vision and Samaritan's Purse are helping orphans and people touched by the AIDS crisis.


PHOTO: A group of children in Kagera, Rushwa ward, one of the areas which is greatly affected by AIDS. It is estimated that one of every five people is an orphan. (Photo by Peter Mwakabwale/World Vision.)